Addiction to alcohol is a serious disease and it’s more common than people think. There are often relationships between alcohol and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
While an eating disorder can occur at any time in someone’s life, they frequently appear during the teen or young-adult years. It’s very common for eating disorders to co-occur with substance abuse as well as depression or anxiety.
Why Do Alcohol and Eating Disorders Often Occur Together?
Like an addiction, eating disorders are complex and believed to be influenced by several factors including psychological, biological elements and environmental elements. Some of the factors can include:
- Poor self-esteem
- Family dysfunction
- Traumatic childhood
Similar to other disorders and addictions, eating and alcohol use disorders may be a coping mechanism for people who suffered from trauma and experience underlying sadness, fear, anxiety, and stress.
Research has shown that bulimia can occur in 8 to 41 percent of people with substance use disorders. Anorexia can co-occur in 2 to 10 percent of people with substance use disorders. Other studies showed that eating disorders are significantly more common in people with substance use disorders.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), almost 50 percent of people with an eating disorder also have a substance use disorder. This amount is five times more than the general population and it affects both males and females.
Because anorexia is restrictive, the constant worrying about skipping meals or restricting calories can be challenging for someone to manage. To reduce the amount of anxiety someone is experiencing, they may abuse alcohol to numb their symptoms. In addition to managing symptoms of anorexia, research suggests that while alcohol has calories, it’s often used by people with eating disorders like anorexia to facilitate vomiting and dehydration.
Someone with anorexia may also use alcohol to suppress their appetite. They may drink during the day to avoid eating or relieve the guilt or shame they might feel if they do eat. Alcohol doesn’t have any nutritional value so if someone with anorexia develops an alcohol use disorder, they can become malnourished in addition to the development of the other health conditions associated with anorexia.
While the old saying that correlation is not causation is important to keep in mind here, there is some relationship between alcohol and eating disorders. The ways in which alcohol and anorexia are related have been shown in countless research studies.
There is some belief that while alcohol does have calories, it’s often used by people with eating disorders such as anorexia to facilitate vomiting and also dehydration. When asking are alcohol and anorexia related, the question is so common that a slang term has even been created for the scenario: “drunkorexia.”
So-called drunkorexia is most common among women in college, although it impacts many ages and both genders. There is the thought that if often occurs when people are in a situation away from the comforts of home and are feeling like competition and unfamiliarity surround them, and the stress often turns into eating and substance use disorders.
Another way alcohol and anorexia can be related is because alcohol can be used by people with an eating disorder to calm anxiety or to get rid of guilt they may feel about eating, or in some cases, not eating.
People with anorexia may also try to not eat during the day, which will allow them to feel less guilty about the calories they will consume at night when they drink. There are so many problems with this, including the fact that alcohol doesn’t have nutritional value.
When someone binges on food or alcohol they will make themselves vomit because they could experience feelings of shame and guilt about their behavior. People with bulimia may also drink alcohol to numb their shame and guilt and to escape the challenges of managing their symptoms. Binging on food and alcohol may also suggest that someone is attempting to address a deficiency in some area of their life that they feel they lack.
People with bulimia may abuse substances as a way to make themselves vomit more easily. Drinking a large amount of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning and can put someone at a higher risk of depression and suicide.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder among adults in America. People living with BED often overeat in an attempt to escape negative emotions or feelings. This unhealthy coping mechanism can result in feelings of shame, guilt and self-loathing.
One cause of both binge eating and drinking can release dopamine. Dopamine produces feelings of pleasure, happiness and reward in the brain. Someone may initially be lacking dopamine or be experiencing anxiety and stress and looking for a way to cope.
Another cause of binge eating and drinking is associated with undiagnosed psychological disorders. For example, someone living with depression typically experiences similar symptoms of BED, such as feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness and decreased impulse control. It’s a cyclical pattern of behavior because after binge drinking, someone’s inhibitions are lowered and they may feel less ashamed about eating in excess.
Researchers also attribute binge eating and drinking to societal pressures. The desire to fit in may cause the development of BED to achieve society’s standard of a “perfect body” and people may feel pressured to binge drink to be able to interact in social situations.
Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are dangerous enough on their own, but when paired with an alcohol use disorder or alcoholism they can increase health problems and possibly result in death. When someone struggles with an eating and alcohol use disorder, the best solution is to seek treatment for both disorders at the same time.
It’s important to treat both disorders at the same time because if one disorder is addressed and not the other, the chances of a setback occurring increases. The first step for treating a co-occurring eating and alcohol use disorder is detoxification from alcohol. Detoxing from alcohol can be dangerous if not done correctly. It is suggested to find a treatment facility or hospital to medically detox so healthcare professionals can monitor the process.
After the detox is complete, the patient will typically enter an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. The only difference between these two types of programs is that inpatient requires the patient to reside at the treatment facility and the outpatient program may not. Both programs will most likely combine therapy and nutrition counseling for the eating disorder, the type of therapy that the treatment provider chooses for the patient will be determined by the patients:
- Mental health disorder
- Overall health
- Social needs (relationships)
- Recovery goals
- Potential threats to sobriety
Each patient’s treatment plan should be individualized to best meet that person’s specific disorders.
If you drink alcohol and want to learn more about your substance use behaviors, take The Recovery Village®’s self-assessment. This quiz can help you recognize the presence of alcohol addiction or dependence.
Key Points: Alcohol and Eating Disorders
Some facts to remember about alcohol and eating disorders include:
- Both alcohol use and eating disorders are dangerous on their own but can increase the risk of health conditions and death when they co-occur
- Bulimia can occur from 8 to 41 percent of people with substance use disorders
- Anorexia can co-occur in 2 to 10 percent of people
- It’s essential to treat alcohol use and eating disorders at the same time because if one disorder is being addressed and not the other, the chances of a setback are likely to increase
If you or someone you know struggles with co-occurring disorders like alcohol use and eating disorders, help is available. At The Recovery Village®, a team of professionals can design an individualized treatment plan to suit patients’ specific disorders. Call and speak with a representative to learn more about which program could work for you.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.